ẞ – a Very Special Character
In October 2021, the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel ran a book fair special and asked for my favorite letter. I don’t actually have one, but for the sake of provocation, I said that my favorite was the uppercase sharp s.
My favorite letter is ẞ, the versal eszett. Not only is it the newest letter in the German alphabet, but it’s also so beautifully controversial!
A letter controversial? You wouldn’t think so. And yet the debate about whether or not the German language needs the eszett even as a capital letter had been going on for over a century when the Council for German Orthography finally officially allowed the use of »ẞ« as an alternative to »SS« on June 29, 2017.
Not unimportant at all
Who argues about such things, you ask? In November 2018, around 80 designers attended an event on the subject of the capital version of the German sharp s in Berlin. Among other things, they listened to a presentation by designer Nadine Roßa, who spoke that evening as someone who is affected. She wants her name to be spelled correctly in official documents – and her name is not ROSSA but ROẞA. Just like the MAẞE of an object – its dimensions – are not the same as its MASS – its mass.
Here’s a bit of typo-nerd knowledge you can show off at your next party: The ß was originally a ligature, two characters merged into one. In this case, it was a combination of the long s »ſ«, which is no longer common today, with the round s. Perhaps it was also a combination of »ſ« and »z«, this is historically uncertain, but it would explain the name: eszett – sz.
The opponents of the uppercase ẞ argue that the ß is a lowercase ligature and that there are no words in German that begin with an eszett. They also claim that no one has yet come up with a convincing form for this new letter, that the previous proposals are too similar to the lowercase letter ß, and, in general, that the ẞ can all too easily be mistaken for a B.
But the type designers of the world are on it, and in the meantime four forms have emerged that stand up to these accusations. My favorite is the Dresden form: Isn’t it it lovely how the upper arch still recalls the long s and contrasts with the straight diagonal?
As you can see, this discussion is also about fundamental matters, namely whether type is and should be changeable or not. And if you write German and want to show yourself as progressive in this matter, why don’t you use the ẞ at the next occasion?
PS: If you read German and want to know more – this article summarizes the discussion with lots of examples.
PPS: You won’t find the ẞ on your keyboard, but on the PC you can type it with the key combination [Shift] + [Alt Gr] + [ß]. On a Mac this doesn’t work, so just do it like me: google + copy + paste.